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The North East: Menacing Nexus

Posted on Feb 25, 06:33PM | IBNS

By South Asia Intelligence Review: India's Northeast, troubled by decades of militancy and ethnic extremism had seen dramatic improvements in the security scenario over the past years. A multiplicity of enduring insurgencies had weakened considerably, either disintegrating or seeking peace through negotiated settlements with the Government.

The region has, however, given cause for some concern in 2012. Insurgency-related fatalities in the Northeast had seen sustained and dramatic improvements, from a recent peak of 1,051 in 2008, collapsing to 246 fatalities in 2011. 2012 saw a reversal of this trend, with 317 killed.

The sharpest deterioration has been visible in Nagaland, followed by Manipur and Meghalaya.

In Nagaland, according to the SATP database, annual fatalities have risen from just three in 2010, to 15 in 2011, and, dramatically, to 60 in 2012. An overwhelming proportion of the fatalities are attributed to fratricidal clashes. Through 2012, there were 42 incidents of fratricidal violence between the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) and NSCN-Khole-Kitovi (NSCN-KK), within the State, with 53 killed and 23 injured, as against seven killed and five injured in 2011.

Fratricidal rivalry among the Nagas has persisted since the formation of the NSCN-K and NSCN-Isak - Muivah (NSCN-IM), following the split of the original NSCN on April 30, 1988. More recently, turf wars between Naga groups have resulted in escalating violence with the further split of both the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K. The NSCN-KK, a splinter group of NSCN-K, was formed on June 7, 2011. The NSCN-IM also split in 2011, with the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), a Manipur based Naga group, breaking away on February 25, 2011.

In Manipur, after dramatic declines in insurgent violence over the preceding two years, total fatalities surged by 69.23 per cent, at 110 in 2012, from the 65 recorded in 2011. While civilian fatalities remained the same, fatalities among the Security Forces (SFs) rose from 10 in 2011 to 12 in 2012. There was, however, more than a two-fold increase in militant fatalities, from 30 in 2011 to 73 in 2012. 63 incidents of killing were recorded in 2012, as compared to 33 in 2011.

CorCom, which comprised of seven Valley-based militant groups [now six], remained the most violent formation in the State. Of 12 SF fatalities in 2012, nine were attributed to CorCom. The group escalated violence particularly during the Assembly Elections of January 2012. However, CorCom expelled the United People's Party of Kangleipak (UPPK) from its membership after meetings with leaders of UPPK on January 28 and 31, 2013. A CorCom release stated that the resolution expelling UPPK was adopted during the 6th meeting of CorCom.

Manipur also recorded an escalation of violence by Naga groupings engaged in turf wars in the Tamenglong District. There were at least nine clashes between the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) - at times a combined force of ZUF and NSCN-K - and the NSCN-Isak-Muivah, which resulted in 24 fatalities, as against seven fatalities in four such reported incidents in 2011.

The otherwise 'peaceful' state of Meghalaya is now plagued by activities of new militant formations, Hynniewtrep People's Liberation Front (HPLF) and A'chik National Unit Force (ANUF), reportedly formed in mid-2012; the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) formed in 2009; a breakaway faction of the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC-B) 'discovered' in March 2012; and also by the revival of older formations, including Liberation Achik Elite Force (LAEF), formed in 2005; ANVC, created in1995, which had entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Government in 2004; and Hyniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), raised in 1992. Despite some incidents of violence by other militant outfits, the GNLA has continued to account for the maximum number of incidents in the State since its formation towards the end of 2009.

According to the SATP database, insurgency-related fatalities in Meghalaya increased to 48 in 2012, as against 29 in 2011. More worryingly, civilian fatalities rose to 27, from 11 in 2011. Militant fatalities also spiked to 19 in 2012, as against eight in 2011. Fatalities among the SFs, however, declined to just two in 2012, as against 10 in 2011. Intensive operations against the GNLA have been on, virtually since formation of the outfit.

While the government has shown little interest in holding talks with GNLA and HNLC, on January 5, 2013, the Union and State Governments signed a draft agreement with both ANVC and ANVC-B for the expansion of powers of the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC).

Assam recorded comprehensive improvements through 2010 and 2011, but 2012 recorded repeated large-scale conflagrations involving Bodos and Muslims between July 20 and September 18, which left at least 109 dead. This was the second such clash involving Bodos and Muslims since the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003. The first confrontation had occurred in 2008, and claimed 55 lives.

While the Bodo-Muslim conflagration resumed after a four-year hiatus, the levels of insurgent violence have remained more or less the same, in comparison to the preceding year. 91 persons, including 55 militants, 32 civilians and four SF personnel, were killed in 67 incidents of killing in 2012, while total fatalities in 2011 stood at 94, including 45 militants, 34 civilians and 15 SF personnel, in 66 incidents. The sharp decrease in the number of SF personnel killed reflects some operational successes on the part of the state.

Worryingly, 2013 witnessed another ethnic conflagration between Rabhas and non-Rabhas in Goalpara District on the Southern bank of Brahmaputra in Western Assam. The conflict was triggered over issues of holding Panchayat (local level self Government institution) elections in Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC) areas, and left 20 people dead.

2012 also witnessed the signing of peace accords with both factions of the Dima Halim Daogah - the Dilip Nunisa faction (DHD-N) and the Jewel Garlosa faction [(DHD-J also known as Black Widow (BW)] on October 8, 2012 with the Central and State Governments, agreements which came eight years after the signing of a ceasefire agreement with the undivided DHD.

The Anti-Talks faction of United Nation Liberation Front (ULFA-ATF) and the Karbi People's Liberation Tigers (KPLT) continue to account for most of the violent activities in Assam. ULFA-ATF was involved in at least 20 killings in 17 incidents in 2012; while KPLT was involved in 16 recorded incidents of violence, including eight incidents of killing, resulting in 15 fatalities, in 2012. The Maoists have also been found to be involved in at least 10 incidents in 2012, as compared to three in 2011 and just one in 2010.

Despite apprehensions of political adventurism creating renewed risks, Assembly elections in Tripura were peaceful and without any insurgent involvement. Tripura recorded just two insurgency-related fatalities in 2012, both of militant cadres. 2011 had witnessed a single death, a remarkable contrast to the 514 fatalities in 2000, when terrorism was at its peak in the State. Nevertheless, Tripura continues to record incidents of extortion and abduction for extortion, primarily by the Biswamohan faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM), creating apprehensions of a revival of this group.

For some years, an 'overflow' of violence from neighboring states had disturbed some areas of Arunachal Pradesh, and occasional 'indigenous' insurgencies have also been provoked by some external players. In 2011, a 'new' militant group, the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) was formed by its 'commander-in-chief' Sumona Munglang, who was once a sharpshooter in the Dawood Ibrahim gang, which was involved in the Mumbai bombings of 1993. UPDF has now suffered a tremendous setback after the arrest of Munlang, along with another six cadres on October 1, 2012.

Arunachal Pradesh had witnessed the overflow of the activities of the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K factions, as well as ULFA in the past. According to SATP data, the State recorded only four (militant) fatalities in 2012, down from 41 fatalities in 2011. There have been at least 11 clashes between the two NSCN factions in Arunachal Pradesh during the period 2001-2012, resulting in at least 49 killings. In 2012, the State recorded three killings in a factional clash between the NSCN groups, while the remaining militant fatality was of an ULFA-ATF cadre killed in an encounter.

In Mizoram, nagging issues continue to feed cycles of low grade strife. The 'silent' activities of Hmar militants, under the Hmar People's Convention-Democracy (HPC-D), and the issue of Bru (Reang) refugees, remain unresolved, more than two-and-a-half decades after peace was restored to the State in 1986. According to the SATP database, Mizoram recorded no fatalities in 2012 while there was a single fatality in 2011; none in 2010; and one in 2009.

In a significant development, on January 31, 2013, the HPC-D and the Government of Mizoram signed a Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement with the HPC-D in Aizawl, for a period of six months, after several months of suspense. The HPC-D had entered into the SoO agreement on November 11, 2010, for six months. After the agreement expired on May 11, 2011, it was not extended by the Mizoram Government on the grounds that HPC-D was violating SoO ground rules. HPC-D has been demanding the creation of an Autonomous District Council (ADC) in Mizoram. The outfit, however, received a major setback on June 10, 2012, when SFs arrested two top leaders of the HPC-D, 'army chief' Lalropuia and 'deputy army chief' Biaknunga, at the Kumbigram Airport located in Silchar, Cachar District, Assam. Again, on July 18, 2012, H. Zosangbera, the 'chairman' of HPC-D, was arrested from Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, by a combined team of Mizoram Police and Delhi Police.

Further, a February 18, 2013, report claimed that the Mizoram Bru Displaced People's Forum (MBDPF), led by A. Sawibung, had finally succeeded in bringing the issue of repatriation of Bru refugees from Tripura relief camps, to Mizoram, on the negotiating table with the State Government. So far only 891 families have been repatriated to Mizoram, in four phases of repatriation between May 2010 and May 2012, out of an estimated 35,000 Bru refugees in Tripura.

General improvements in regional security are, however, facing an escalating threat from the growing unity among various insurgent groups in the Northeast, with external linkages worsened by the entry of the Communist Party of India - Maoist (CPI-Maoist).

In Assam, after both factions of the DHD signed peace accords with the Government on October 8, 2012, the NSCN-IM reportedly intensified efforts to extend its influence in Dima Hasao and revive the insurgency in the District. An unnamed Police officer disclosed that, after the DHD factions signed peace pacts with the government, the NSCN-IM had formed a 'united forum' of non-Dimasa ethnic communities in the District, which opposed the signing of the DHD-Government pacts. The NSCN-IM is also linked to the Hill Tiger Force (HTF), a non-Dimasa outfit in the District. Interestingly, NSCN-IM has also been able to retain its influence among Dimasa groups. The Dimasa National Revolutionary Front (DNRF) (formed in 2010) was engaged in a massive extortion drive, jointly with the NSCN-IM, in the strife-torn Dima Hasao District. In return, it receives arms and training for cadres in NSCN-IM camps outside Dima Hasao.

KPLT has also established links with the Anti-Talks faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-ATF) and NSCN-K. Reports suggest that KPLT has tied up with United Nation Liberation Front (UNLF) and Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), as well, for training new cadres.

2012 also saw growing links between ULFA-ATF and the GNLA, with the former seeking to maintain an open corridor through Meghalaya for movement into hideouts in Bangladesh.

Remnants of Arunachal Pradesh's UPDF, backed by ULFA-ATF and NSCN-K, remain a point of concern even after the outfit suffered major setbacks. In the latest incident, in December 2012, joint cadres of ULFA-ATF and UPDF abducted Assam small tea grower Pradip More and his associate, Chandrapal Sharma, from Namsai in Lohit District. The hostages were, however, recued after few days.

In Tripura, NLFT-BM has reportedly 'tamed' its rival, the now virtually defunct All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), in its effort to establish complete dominance in the State. There were also reports of the NLFT-BM targeting Bru refugees from Mizoram for recruitment.

In a demonstration of its unification efforts, ULFA-ATF, now actively supported by China, led 10 other militant groups based in the Northeast to call for a boycott of Republic Day celebrations (January 26, 2013), to protest "India's unrelenting colonial occupation of the region." The other groups that joined the protest included NDFB-ATF, NLFT, Tripura People's Democratic Front (TPDF), the political wing of ATTF and CorCom of Manipur.

The regions security concerns were compounded further by the increasing activities of the CPI-Maoist in the Northeast, as the Left Wing Extremists established links with almost all active outfits of the region. SFs have uncovered vital information regarding the CPI-Maoist's plans to set up guerrilla zones in the hills in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, in order to strengthen their 'armed wing' in the region. Significantly, on July 19, 2012, security agencies discovered the 'blueprint' of the Maoist action plan for the Northeastern region. According to their road map, the Maoists have plans to form a 'strategic zone' comprising the hilly terrain of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao Districts of Assam, and the Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Union Home Ministry had warned that Maoists incursions into Assam and Arunachal Pradesh had "serious strategic implications".

Intelligence sources also claimed, on June 22, 2012, that the Maoists had extended a helping hand to NLFT to expand the latter's area of operation in Tripura. Citing the statement of five NLFT militants who had surrendered on June 16, the Police disclosed that the Maoists had opened a new front in Tripura. Besides NSCN-K and Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), NLFT had entered into an alliance with the Maoists to restart extremism in the State. According to their confession, as many as 29 tribal youth had been sent to Myanmar in November 2011, to undertake arms training in Maoist camps. A Police source added, "All of them were from the Mandai area on the outskirts of Agartala and they have been approached by a group of surrendered NLFT militants, who are staying in Government accommodation, and are drawing monthly remuneration under rehabilitation scheme."

Further, according to a December 18, 2012, report, a supplementary charge sheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), in the CPI-Maoist-PLA nexus case, revealed that the CPI-Maoist had been procuring Chinese arms and communication equipment from PLA via Myanmar, and routing it to Kolkata (West Bengal) through Guwahati (Assam), between 2006 and 2011. IB reports had earlier revealed that China had been encouraging the Maoists and militant groups from Jammu & Kashmir and the North East region to unite to form a single war-fighting machine, a 'united strategic front' against the Indian State.

Worryingly, reports in late 2012 cited highly placed security sources to claim that weapons made available in Myanmar by China had procured by a section of refugees from southern Bhutan, suggesting that a new militancy could well arise in the region.

Significantly, 44 UPPK cadres (after they were expelled from CorCom) and one KLO cadre, all of whom were 'rescued' by SFs on February 3, 2012, had come from a camp which they shared with the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF) and the KLO of Assam, at Leipok in Tamu Sub-division, Myanmar. North East Indian rebels have also established a unified camp in the Taga area of Myanmar's Kachin region, bordering India.

Despite Bangladesh's efforts to oust Northeast Indian insurgents from its soil, reports suggest a possible resurgence of Northeast militants in the neighboring country as well. A November 15, 2012, report indicated that India's Border Security Force (BSF) had requested its Bangladeshi counterpart, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) to destroy 55 camps of Northeast insurgent group in Bangladesh. A BSF official stated, "Despite a pro-active role of the security forces in Bangladesh to dismantle the camps of insurgents from the region, at least 55 camps still exist there. BSF officials have handed over a list of the camps to them and asked them to demolish the camps."

Significantly, India and Bangladesh has signed an extradition treaty on January 28, 2013.

Insurgencies in India's Northeast have seen repeated cycles of reverses and resurgence. Most States in the region remain poorly governed and, on a wide range of parameters, backward - though they perform well above the Indian average on at least some indicators of welfare and development. The region remains poorly connected, both internally and externally, and its poorly maintained transport lifelines are under constant threat of disruption by extremist and radical political formations. The dramatic improvements of the recent past have created tremendous opportunities to accelerate processes of development and improve the quality of governance. If these opportunities are wasted - as they substantially have been in the past - the insurgent impulse would quickly recover its vitality, reinventing its structures, strategies and tactics to better adapt to the imperatives of the present. The recent conflagrations in Assam have demonstrated clearly that, however significant the gains of the state in a particular theatre, there is no space for the pattern of administrative incompetence, political corruption and neglect that has characterized governance in the Northeast - and, increasingly, much of India as well. The enemy waits, close at hand.

(The writer Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)

(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)